Flexibility Test

Plastic-pouch food packaging is showing up everywhere—except at recycling facilities.

Photo: Damien Cox/FlickrCapri Sun's signature flexible pouches can't be recycled

Late last year, 40,000 people presented Kraft Heinz, North America’s third-largest food company, with a singular demand: Quit selling your Capri Sun juice drink in flexible plastic pouches, a packaging form that has been intrinsic to the brand’s identity for more than 40 years. The pouches, the petitioners declared, were “designed for the dump”—neither reusable nor recyclable nor compostable. And given that Kraft was pumping out 1.4 billion of them annually, they amounted to a serious problem for the environment.

The Squeeze is On

The letter writers had been organized by an advocacy group called Upstream, which promotes sustainable product design and an end to throwaway plastics. The campaign, called “Make It, Take It,” was no fringe venture; it had the backing of 23 organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (disclosure), representing five million people. Still, Kraft would not budge. Nor would it make any substantive response several months later to a similar demand made by 29 percent of Kraft’s own shareholders—a voting block representing a market value of $9 billion.

Out of the tens of thousands of products that come in nonrecyclable pouches, Upstream targeted Capri Sun because the brand is iconic, hugely successful (reaping more than $500 million in sales annually), and marketed directly to children—our next generation of recyclers. “My whole career has been about pushing corporations to take responsibility for their product waste,” Matt Prindiville, the organization’s executive director, says. “They created this problem. This packaging didn’t even exist 50 years ago.”

The Capri Sun–style pouch has recently become ubiquitous on U.S. store shelves, where it can be found enclosing everything from dog meals to baby food, detergent to dill pickles. But it has actually been around since 1962, when Louis Doyen, the chairman of the French company Thimonnier, invented a lightweight package that could contain liquids, stand erect on a shelf, and present two relatively large surfaces for printing—the better to attract a customer’s eye.

Photo: ParentingWatch/Wikimedia CommonsFlexible plastic pouches in the baby food aisle

The Doypack, as the multilayer pouch with the gusseted bottom is known, was a huge success. Easy and economical to manufacture, not to mention super lightweight compared with other forms of packaging, empty Doypacks could be rolled onto spools—taking up far less space in trucks and storage rooms than bottles or cans—and filled at high speeds. Pouches with an inner layer of aluminum (like Capri Sun’s) also offered the benefit of keeping food fresh without refrigeration for a long time, saving on energy costs and perhaps even cutting down on food waste. Americans now go through about 80 billion pouches a year. Industry analysts predict the number could hit 92 billion by 2018.

Flexible packaging like the Doypack is perhaps the most extreme expression of “lightweighting,” the practice of using less material in the manufacture of consumable goods without compromising durability. Inarguably, lightweighting conserves natural resources—oil, trees, water, energy—and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. It also saves companies money on materials and on the fuel needed to ship their goods.

But these upstream environmental and economic gains exact a serious downstream toll. As ordinary citizens ponder the rising billows of nonrecyclable film in their kitchen trash cans, as celebrities broadcast plaintive PSAs about ocean plastics, and as images of plastic-strangled turtles and seabirds proliferate, the conversation on single-use packaging has begun to shift. In recent years, voters have pushed local governments across the country to ban plastic bags, water bottles, and polystyrene. They’ve lobbied the makers of Brita water filters and various coffee capsules to take back and recycle their packaging. Most recently they’ve pushed seven states—and, as of this week, the United States Congress—to pass legislation restricting the use of plastic microbeads, which are found in toothpaste, facial scrubs, and body wash; these tiny bits of plastic wash down bathroom drains and then out into waterways, where they menace aquatic life.

Companies have been responding to the pressure. In 2014, As You Sow, the San Francisco–based nonprofit that had organized the shareholder resolution against Kraft, won an agreement from Procter & Gamble: The company declared that by 2020 it would make 90 percent of its packaging recyclable. The Honest Kids juice drink brand, owned by Coca-Cola, has also said that it will be moving away from pouches and into aseptic cartons—the same kind that keep your almond milk fresh—which are recyclable with the paper stream in 55 percent of U.S. communities.

Recycling the Unrecyclable

Technically speaking, flexible plastic film made of a single material can be recycled. (Some of it returns to life as an ingredient in reusable shopping bags, although most becomes plastic lumber, pavers, and pallets.) Still, supermarket collection boxes for used bags and other films are able to recover, at best, just 15 percent of the material that’s generated. Moreover, there are relatively few buyers of postconsumer flexible film in the nation, and these buyers have shown little interest in multi-material pouches topped with Ziplocs and caps, which are more difficult and expensive to process.

Kraft won’t reveal whether it is considering a change in Capri Sun packaging, but other stakeholders have already begun to experiment with the company’s flexible-plastic dregs. Throughout the summer of 2014, a consortium made up of Dow Chemical, the Flexible Packaging Association, the American Chemistry Council, and Republic Waste Services ran a small experiment in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights. There they distributed purple bags to roughly 23,000 households for the collection of non-recyclable flexible plastics: candy wrappers, potato chip sacks, frozen food bags, meat wraps, and pouches.

Once the purple bags were full, residents tossed them into their recycling bins, and the local recycling facility transferred them to trucks bound for the town of Tigard, Oregon. There the plastics were transformed into synthetic fuel through a super-high-temperature and nearly oxygen-free melting process known as pyrolysis. “The fuel can be further refined into a high-value product like diesel fuel, gasoline, fuel pellets for energy, or other chemicals,” says Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader of Dow Chemical. According to Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center, converting nonrecycled plastics (not just flexibles) into oil could generate 3.6 billion gallons of gasoline per year, enough to fuel nearly six million cars for one year.

But just because plastic can be converted into fuel, does that mean it should be? Not according to a number of scientists and environmental advocates. One of them is Ananda Lee Tan of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, who sees pyrolysis as merely “another form of incineration.” (As a matter of fact, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union classify pyrolysis as just that.) Pyrolysis plants have been shown to emit small amounts of the carcinogen dioxin, Tan says, in addition to nitrogen oxides and other harmful contaminants.

What’s more, once they’ve been built, pyrolysis plants must be continuously fed—and many observers worry that readily recyclable material will inevitably end up in these facilities as well. Recyclers who make their money selling rigid plastics could lose revenue, and manufacturers who rely on recycled plastic pellets could lose their feedstock. “Converting plastics to energy isn’t the highest, or the best, use for these materials,” according to NRDC’s Darby Hoover, who worked closely with As You Sow on a 2015 report detailing waste issues in consumer packaging. “Yes, pouches are hard to recycle. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” Hoover says. “This is a design decision: We need to figure out how to incentivize or pressure companies to innovate.”

Mail it in?

Until such upstream innovation materializes, however, some manufacturers of hard-to-recycle products have been looking downstream—specifically, to a $20 million company called TerraCycle, which occupies a funky looking industrial building in a run-down quarter of Trenton, New Jersey. The company, which operates in 21 countries, helps more than 100 of the world’s largest brands (including Nestle, L’Oreal, and Staples) green their images and shrink their environmental footprints by keeping their hard-to-recycle packaging out of landfills and incinerators.

Photo: Terra cycle/FlickrTerracycle's headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey

Tom Szaky, TerraCycle’s puckish-looking founder, explains how his company works. Using prepaid shipping boxes, consumers and institutions send their drink pouches, toothpaste tubes, chip bags, energy bar wrappers, ballpoint pens, and lipstick tubes (among many other castoffs) to a TerraCycle warehouse. Recyclers shred the material, melt it, and force the goop through a perforated die. The resultant resin strands are then chopped into pellets the size of uncooked grains of couscous and sold to the makers of picnic tables, benches, and shipping pallets.

Seated at a battered desk in the middle of a bustling open office, Szaky holds up a green-flecked plastic dome. “This is pure chip bag,” he says, referring to the material’s past life as a holder of salty snacks. Now, he adds, “it’s an injection-molded fitting for the end of a pipe.” Szaky acknowledges how devilishly difficult flexibles can be to recycle: “You’ve got all these multilayer packages with different formulations of plastic—polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate—and they’re all mixed together. Sometimes there’s aluminum in there, sometimes fiber.”

Still, TerraCycle manages to do it. Chemists analyze the plastics with a pair of dauntingly named high-tech instruments—a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer and a differential scanning calorimeter—then mix polymers into new recipes according to buyers’ specs. But the process isn’t cheap. The only reason TerraCycle can stay afloat chopping 10 million pounds of packaging a year into pellets, which it sells for below-market rates, is that various stakeholders—retailers and brand owners—cut him checks in exchange for the privilege of printing the phrase “Recyclable Through TerraCycle” on their packaging. Kraft, for example, pays Szaky’s organization more than $1 million a year to handle its Capri Sun pouches.

Szaky acknowledges that his recovery rate is low, but he also insists that it’s growing at the same pace it took the United States to reach its current recycling rate of almost 35 percent. Still, when he is asked whether it would be more expedient for Kraft to simply start packaging its juice drinks into more easily recyclable containers, his answer is an adamant no. In fact, he says, it would amount to an environmental disaster, since those containers actually require more natural resources to manufacture, “and Americans already send 70 percent of them to landfills.”

And what does Szaky think about the purple bag pilot program? “Pyrolysis is insane,” he practically sputters. “You’re turning everything into a fuel that gets burned a year later.” That’s terrible for the atmosphere, he points out, and it should be considered anathema to the basic principles of resource conservation, since it forces the makers of picnic tables and pipe ends to source new plastic—in the form of oil or natural gas—from the earth.

A Plastics Puzzle

Flexible plastics pose a recycling conundrum that everyone agrees we must solve, although nobody is exactly sure how. Even Matt Prindiville, who just a year ago was leading the charge against Capri Sun pouches, has become more, well, flexible on the subject as he’s encountered the quandary outlined by Szaky and others. Where he once refused to acknowledge the pouch’s right to exist, he’s now willing to embrace its potential environmental upside within the larger context of product packaging. Instead of shunning, a priori, the conversion of refuse into fuel, for example, he now considers it a potentially elegant solution for hard-to-recycle plastics—especially in nations that lack adequate waste infrastructure of any kind, let alone ways to recycle.

“I want easy answers,” Prindiville says from his small office in Rockland, Maine, where a tunic made from Capri Sun pouches hangs on the wall. “But the deeper I dig, the more complicated this gets. I used to think that corporations alone had to take responsibility for a product’s end of life. I realize now that big environmental problems require an ecosystem of actors and solutions. Companies need to invest in recycling technologies and logistics, and they have to work with others along the supply chain.” Those others may work at TerraCycle, or they may work at pyrolysis plants. They may be consultants crafting legislation to increase recycling rates or polymer chemists partnering with waste handlers to design pouches that can easily be taken apart and reused.

“But ultimately,” Prindiville concludes, “what we need is for people to say, ‘No, we’re going to stop purchasing this disposable crap until you change to packaging that’s reusable, recyclable, or compostable.’”

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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